Movie and Film Reviews (MFR) Drama,Romance Johnny Cash Does Hollywood

Johnny Cash Does Hollywood

The formula for a rock and roll biopic is pretty familiar by now, especially from early on, in the 50’s. A good ole’ boy from humble beginnings feels the pull of scandalous music, much to the chagrin of his family. When he’s all grown up, he sets his mind to becoming a star, and whether after hardship or terrific ease, manages. Then comes the hard life of touring: drugs, alcohol, and women. These forefathers of rock did, in fact, have similar back stories. However, you see one plastered, drugged up, philandering musician, you’ve seen them all. The rock and roll biopic has entered cliché. It is up to the filmmakers to approach such a film with novelty in order to make the tired story interesting to jaded audiences. With the help of some good character development, an excellent cast, and a toe-tapping soundtrack, Walk the Line manages to break the biopic mold enough to stand out.

It is obvious, even to an ignorant viewer like myself, that the story of Johnny Cash’s life writer and director James Mangold presents is a neatly compressed, romantic interpretation of a very conflicted, very complicated artist. Mangold presents everything with a slant, asserting that every decision Cash makes spurs from how he is treated by the woman he loves: a debatable conclusion.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny Cash, and Reese Witherspoon plays his second wife, June Carter. The stars were actually handpicked by Cash and Carter before the couple died five months apart from one another. Throughout the film, Cash pursues Carter, despite still being married to his first wife. The very beginning of the film flashes back to Cash’s childhood when he was known as J.R. The country boy, infatuated with music, quizzes his brother about which member of the famous Carter family is singing on the radio, and it happens to be June. Later, as a young man in the army, Cash moons over a magazine with Carter, the Opry’s loveable daughter, on the cover. In the meantime, he is writing the song that will eventually catapult him into fame. Mangold never blatantly says “June is the reason Johnny breathes,” but he leaves little for the audience to guess at. In the film, when Carter and Cash finally become close friends, and she rejects the possibility of anything closer, Cash instantly turns to booze, black pills, and fan girls. The premise that Carter is the cause of Cash’s self-destruction takes away from the drama of his actual shame, although Phoenix does a good job of representing the star’s decline.

The character development, particularly of Cash, is done extremely well. In the beginning, Mangold and Phoenix pull us into Cash’s life, making us viewers as uncomfortable in his mundane routine as Cash is, especially with his talent smoldering in the background. With the help of Cash’s back story and the charisma Phoenix evokes as the legendary star, we feel for him and like him. Thus, while some films either apologize for their stars’ ruin or glorify the path they choose, Walk the Line portrays the circumstances in a way that makes us want to shake some sense into Cash, knock him around a little. We know more than the characters do; we know that the only place drugs and alcohol lead is to tragedy. Furthermore, we grow to like this movie version of Cash, and we do not want him to meet a tragic end. I like that the film does not support Cash’s decisions. It makes for a trustworthy film when the filmmakers like the characters as much as the audience does.

I also like that, even during Cash’s difficult time, the movie maintains its humor. For me, it is reminiscent of my grandfather and his siblings, how they have funny stories that take place in times when things weren’t going so well. It is from that solid Christian, mid-western sensibility that you have to take the bad along with the good. At one point in the film, Carter stumbles upon the battered Cash in a store, with shades on, musing over two children’s books, wondering which to get his daughter. He is seen from Carter’s point of view, and we can’t help but chuckle at the intense look of concentration on his face as his inspects the book of paper dolls.

The other aspect that makes Walk the Line so commendable was the musical performances. What sets this biopic apart from the pile of clichés is that while this is a movie about Johnny Cash and the stars of his era, it is almost primarily an extended performance video. The actors sing for themselves and even play their own instruments. Phoenix managed to match Cash’s voice in a way that may have made the late-star uneasy, considering the gravely, resonating tone was his trademark. Witherspoon doesn’t sound similar to Carter, but she learned to play the autoharp for the role. Shooter Jennings assumed the role of his father, Waylon, and mournfully croons “I’m a Long Way from Home” in a timbre that brings tears to my eyes, especially since I’m 2,500 miles away from my own town in Idaho. The soundtrack provides a nice background for the film. “Ring of Fire” is used in a montage of scenes depicting the frenzy of touring. In staged musical numbers, the camera and lights are basically filmed concerts, only the singers are pretending to be other people.

I did not come out of this movie with a love of Johnny Cash or June Carter, exactly, although I had an appreciation for their lives, of which I know I’d only had a sampling. I saw this film as an example of actors being used to their fullest potential. This movie, to me, simply showcased the talents of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. Tyler Hilton (Elvis Presley), Shooter Jennings, and Waylon Payne (Jerry Lee Lewis) were not huge elements of the film, but they will probably get a lot of notice because of their participation.

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